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Tricky treat

Updike's language can be spellbinding, though his heroines have lost some of their magic

John Updike's new novel, a sequel to ''The Witches of Eastwick,'' features the misdeeds of Sukie, Jane, and Alexandra. John Updike's new novel, a sequel to ''The Witches of Eastwick,'' features the misdeeds of Sukie, Jane, and Alexandra. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
By Richard Eder
October 26, 2008
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The Widows of Eastwick
By John Updike
Knopf, 308 pp., $24.95

It is only partly a criticism to suggest that the most scintillating thing in "The Widows of Eastwick" (those scandalous witches are now in their 60s, their wine turned to vinegar) is a snore.

The snore belongs to Jane, still the most aggressively peppery of the trio, now on a loose-ends, little-more-than-waiting-for-death tour up the Nile. Her cabin mate is the vaguer, blowsier, melancholic Alexandra, who cannot sleep because of Jane's glottal blasts.

Like so much else in this sequel to the 1984 "Witches," the snoring is a stick of excellently turned furniture in a house where not much stirs - certainly not the mad, rather awful, yet comically gripping extravagances of the earlier book.

See, though, what John Updike does with this particular stick. Here, as in a few of his other books, he is a formidable master of writing, even when what he writes about sags. Jane's snore is a trumpet call to the warhorse. He gathers his legs, begins his charge:

"Awake or asleep, Jane insisted, with a relentless, unforgiving will, on being heard," Alexandra reflects. The charge builds up speed and shakes the ground: "As Jane slept, she sucked the oxygen from the air in the inflexible rhythm of a mechanical pump, monotonous and insatiable, each breath attaining a kind of abrasive wall where it scraped and dipped before turning back in the shape of a hook, tugging Alexandra's brain another notch wider awake."

No more than a snore to end all literary snores? Yes, more. It fixes the characters and relationships of the formidably single-purposed aging woman and her many-purposed, introspective former partner in witching. Not entirely former, though.

As Alexandra and Jane continue their travels, soon joined by Sukie (all three widowed and separated since their scandalous doings 30 years earlier forced them out of Eastwick), Jane does a couple of tiny spells for practice. In Egypt she brings down a bat flying overhead; in China she gets the mummified corpse of Mao to wink. When they decide to revisit Eastwick, where their lives had turned briefly electric - suburbanly banal before, comfortably banal since - things become more serious.

They have been neither forgotten nor forgiven. The townspeople are cold or snide. A married lover seduced by Sukie for his beautiful body (she was a local reporter for whom "sleeping around was a kind of news-gathering") presses her with threatening attentions. The widow of the plumber who had been Alexandra's lover grimly indicates that she must use her witchery to get the widow's barren daughter to conceive.

Somehow, perhaps not coincidentally, these things get solved. And then the widow of Jane's musician lover, after a freezing greeting, summons a revenger.

He arrives in the silvery person of Chris, brother of the young woman upon whom the trio had performed a fatal spell because she was about to marry their magus-lover Darryl Van Horne. Soon mysterious electric shocks strike at Jane and Alexandra; one of them suffers a fatally ruptured artery. Sukie prevents further deaths by using her powers to seduce Chris, though she is 30 years older and he is gay.

There are other spells, or seeming spells, though Updike leaves open the possibility that they could just conceivably have natural causes. Even the electric shocks are ascribed by the now-pacified Chris to the action of electrons and protons from a proton gun invented and given him by - who else? - the magus Van Horne. Chris's explanatory riff draws on the murkiest frontiers of particle physics. They are properly hypothesized, no doubt, Updike being Updike; but they are also tedious.

Tedium creeps frequently into "Widows," sometimes in other riffs. Descriptions of the Cairo Museum read like a takeout from one of Updike's art essays; an account of the Great Wall of China could be a travel piece; neither one has much to offer. Neither does a three-page sermon from the Eastwick minister. All seem like padding to make up for the deficit of narrative energy that is the novel's most serious flaw.

In both "Witches" and "Widows" Updike stitches the witchy aspects into a lavishly embroidered fabric of normality. In the first, the normality was able to encompass the boredom, the marital restlessness, and the still-raging hormones of three middle-class housewives in their 30s. Fictionalizing this volcano-like female energy into malefic spells, though no doubt offensive, was a conceit (OK, a male conceit) with a certain alluring vitality.

In "Widows," the vitality and the allure are scarcely to be found. Updike is fine with the everyday normality of his three aging women, but he does not summon up a psychic drive in them sufficient to power the witchery. They do not perform magic; they perform magic tricks. The rest is furniture, and despite polished craftsmanship and one transcendental snore, there is a great static deal of it.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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